A burning issue for firefighters: Flame retardants and cancer

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Ironically, it is the presence of brominated flame retardants and other toxic chemicals in our homes and buildings that makes fires today much more toxic than ever before.

Because of our heavy use of the brominated flame retardants PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) over three decades, we all have pounds of these toxic chemicals in our couches, carpets, baby strollers, plastic TV casings, computers, and foam insulation. As a result, Americans have 10-40 times higher levels in their bodies than Europeans or Asians. It has recently come to light that these chemicals are not only ineffective, but are associated with a wide range of well-documented, serious health effects in people and animals.

Even worse, when flame-retarded materials burn during a house fire, large amounts of cancer-causing dioxins and furans are released into the smoke and dust that firefighters cannot avoid inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through their skin – both while on the job and after, through contact with their clothing.

New insights into the links between firefighting, flame retardants, and cancer resulted from our recently published study on California firefighters. As the lead scientist on the study, I am left with deep concerns about the health of our firefighters.

We analyzed toxic chemicals in the blood of 12 firefighters after a fire event in San Francisco. The study provides the first clear evidence that firefighters accumulate high levels of brominated flame retardants, and their combustion by-products – brominated dioxins and furans – while firefighting. Although a handful of studies had measured chlorinated dioxins in firefighters, ours was the first to measure brominated dioxins and furans. The firefighters had much higher levels and different patterns of these cancer-causing chemicals in their blood than the general population.  For example:

- PBDE levels in blood of the firefighters were three times higher than levels in other Americans and twice as high as levels in California residents.
- Brominated dioxin and furan concentrations in firefighter blood were extremely high, and were 21 times more toxic than the chlorinated dioxins and furans.

The authors concluded that exposure to these chemicals during firefighting may carry even higher risks for cancer and other health problems than previously thought. In light of these findings, a larger study of toxic exposure and health issues in firefighters is being planned.

In addition to the PBDE toxic flame retardant chemicals, we are now seeing, incredibly, the use of a carcinogen – chlorinated Tris – as a replacement chemical for the banned PBDE chemicals. Clearly, the flame retardant chemical industry is likely to replace one dangerous chemical with another. Another replacement for PBDEs in foam furniture and children’s products is Firemaster 550 containing organophosphate flame retardant chemicals. The toxicity of these chemicals is not yet clear, but they are in widespread use. Already, a new study at my institute is finding detectable levels of Firemaster 550 chemicals in the tissues of baby harbor seals, meaning that they are contaminating the ocean environment, our wildlife, and our food supply.

This new information underscores the urgent need for overarching effective toxic chemical legislation to protect not only our firefighters but all Americans from exposure to health-threatening chemicals now in use. Recent polling indicates that public opinion across the country favors toxics reform.

As a scientist, I call on our elected leaders to put human health above flame retardant chemical companies’ profit and support passage of the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847) in the Senate this year.  As Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) says, “…it’s time to protect the public health.”
 
Shaw, DrPH, is a professor of Public Health, Environmental Health Sciences, at the State University of New York, Albany, and the president/ founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute.